For many parents in Southern Illinois, the back to school season is welcomed as children go off to learn for the day and the house becomes peaceful once again.  But for parents of children with disabilities, instead of peace, there is often worry as they wonder how their child is doing at school.  Here is a short three-point guide to help you support your disabled child as he or she navigates the new school year.

1. Establish a comforting routine at home.

For disabled children who often find themselves on the wrong side of the line labeled “normal”, the world can be a confusing and unpredictable place.  School administrators may not know the protocol for handling a situation caused by a disability, for example.  Even parts of school life that are normal for most children, such as playing kickball or getting on the correct bus at the end of the day, can feel chaotic and frightening for a disabled child.

Create an atmosphere of stability at home for your child.

Mornings and afternoons should be the most predictable parts of the day for a child with a disability.  By sticking to a schedule and creating reassuring traditions (always providing an after-school snack, for example), you can provide a strong emotional foundation to help your child tolerate the inevitable difficulties at school.

2. Choose empowerment over protection.

Many parents of disabled children are tempted to minimize any potential difficulty their child may face.  They reason that because the child is already unfairly disadvantaged, they want to level the playing field by removing other sources of risk in the child’s life.  Such parents may volunteer or work at the school to always be accessible to their child in times of stress.  Or they might ask officials to give their child special treatment unrelated to the immediate needs of his or her disability.

Avoid “smothering” a disabled child.  Even if your child’s disability will cause him to need a caretaker or guardian for the rest of his life, allow him to accomplish as many things as possible by himself to gain healthy self-esteem.  Resist the temptation to “hurt by helping”, such as doing your child’s homework for him, even if he is struggling with the problems.  Instead, guide him through problems and give him the satisfaction of knowing that every victory is truly his own.

3. Give your child the tools to deal with bullies and bullying.

Unfortunately, a child with a disability is more likely to be bullied by peers than a child without one.  But there are several ways you can constructively help your disabled child deal with a bully at school:

  • Have your child calm down before getting the details.
    When a child complains of a problem at school, it’s every parent’s first reaction to pick up the phone and demand to know what is happening.  But often, tearful emotions can obscure important facts, such as a fight being the result of a misunderstanding or an accident.  Remember to verify the story before getting in touch with the teacher or another parent.
  • Help your child detach emotionally from the bully’s behavior.
    Victims of bullying often internalize the mistreatment, rationalizing that they must deserve to be bullied if they have been targeted.  Remind your child that it is people who want to hurt others that have something wrong with them, not the people who get hurt.  Offer sympathy, but avoid encouraging pity parties.  Encourage your child to detach from the bully and find better friends, rather than attempting to vicariously fight the bully through your child.
  • Talk to the parents of the child who is bullying.
    Often, a bully is simply repeating lessons he or she may have learned at home, with no consideration for the circumstances that their victim may be facing.  For example, a boy who taunts his disabled classmate for being “weak” may simply be repeating a parent’s encouragement to “toughen up”.  Most parents are shocked to hear that their child is a bully, and if notified will take steps to correct the problem at home.
  • Avoid accidentally contributing to exclusionary behavior or favoritism in the classroom.
    Parents and teachers often spin negatives caused by a disability, such as frequent doctor’s appointments or special requirements, into positives for the child.  “You’re lucky – you get to leave school early while the other kids have to stay!”  “You get a special chair because you are a princess.”  But because bullies often choose their targets out of resentment, children with disabilities can easily become victims.  The extra attention that children with disabilities often require can make less secure children feel jealous and hurt, provoking them to pick on the “favorite”.  If this seems to be the case, notify the teacher so she can monitor the situation, and talk with your child about things he or she can reasonably avoid doing or saying that would aggravate the other child’s insecurity.

A few other topics that come up when I interview families are:

  • Timing of medication (often ADHD children use medicine during the day and are hyper in the evening…)  This is great for behavior at school, but rough on parents and siblings at home.  Channeling the energy in constructive ways can be challenging, but rewarding.
  • Qualification for subsidized lunches should not be overlooked (the income cutoff is pretty high!)
  • Specialized transportation is available for students with a wide range of special needs.
  • Requesting an Individualized Education Plan is every student’s right.  Talk to the administration early in the year to get the right team of educators involved.  Make sure to attend the IEP meeting!  Special Education does not necessarily mean being removed from the main classroom.
  • Applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a good idea if the family income is low, especially if it is low because the parent(s) can’t work as much as they would like due to the child’s disabilities.

Remember, as a parent, you are the first person your child runs to for help when problems arise.  The way you respond will make all the difference in your child’s experience at school.

This post was inspired by the Disability Newsletter from the Social Security Administration.  Find more helpful information on this topic here: